With backing from the same group of young activists who helped make New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a political star, a relatively unknown 26-year-old lawyer has launched a primary challenge to Congressman Henry Cuellar, the eight-term Democrat from Laredo.
A former intern in Cuellar’s Washington, D.C. office, Jessica Cisneros is a Laredo native and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin Law School. In a video announcing her challenge, she touted her support for progressive causes like a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal.
She blasted Cuellar in the video for being too close to Trump, calling him “Trump’s favorite Democrat.”
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“Henry Cuellar voted to defund sanctuary cities and reproductive services for women’s health,” she says in the ad. “He’s received an A rating from the NRA, and he’s accepted thousands of dollars from private prisons and the Koch brothers.”
In response, Cuellar political consultant Colin Strother told Texas Monthly that Cuellar welcomed Cisneros to the race. When asked for a comment directly from Cuellar, Strother said, “Due to the heavy workload of serving in leadership and on [the House Appropriations Committee], he is not going to be available to comment on the March primary at this time.”
This apparent Rose Garden strategy makes sense for Cuellar, at least early on, since his advantages as an incumbent are formidable. He has $3 million in his campaign fund, a fundraising network lubricated by his membership on the House Appropriations Committee, and a strong family presence in his base of Webb County, where his brother is sheriff. Moreover, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has enacted an incumbent-protection policy that prevents vendors or consultants from doing business with the DCCC if they work on behalf of a challenger to a sitting member of the House.
None of that is apparently discouraging Cisneros. “For me it was a very easy decision,” she told Texas Monthly. “South Texas deserves better.” She claimed to have already raised $30,000 from small donors in just six hours following her announcement, significantly more than the amount Cuellar garnered from small individual contributors during the entire 2018 selection cycle ($5,833). Since graduating law school last year, Cisneros worked in immigration law in New York but has returned to Laredo to campaign full-time. She bristles when asked about her qualifications. “I’m qualified,” she said. “This isn’t the first time I hear this about ‘you’re too young or not qualified.’ All of these things aren’t true. I’ve been able to do things [in my life]. I’m qualified.”
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, the political action committee that recruited both AOC and Cisneros, praised the young South Texan: “She represents the voices we so desperately need in Congress right now—millennial, working-class, Latina, first-generation immigrant, and dedicating her life to giving back to her community.”
Ever since Justice Democrats announced in January that they are targeting him in the next election because of his conservative voting record, Cuellar has shrugged off the threat. He hasn’t faced a serious challenge in years. In 2018, his only opponent was a libertarian whom he defeated with more than 84 percent of the vote.
Sergio Mora, a former Webb County Democratic Party chairman who remains active in local politics, expressed surprise at Cisneros’s announcement. “She’s somebody completely from left field,” he said. “It’s most surprising that no one ever heard of her in Democratic Party circles. The roll-out is good. She has a compelling story. She definitely cannot be discounted.”
There’s no indication yet, however, that AOC herself will flex the power of her political celebrity to influence the race. When asked about Cisneros by a Politico reporter on Thursday, she said, “I really don’t know much about her. I don’t believe in just blanket endorsing challengers for challenging’s sake, so it really depends on the merit of the candidate.”